The opening of Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s acclaimed play has the morning sun blazing brightly down upon the townhouse where the action takes place. Much like his masterpiece 12 Angry Men (1957), Lumet uses the environment to help illustrate the tension of the piece. Despite that hot flaming sun, setting the tone about what is about to proceed, it still never feels as searing as the poisonous barbs that are spat out by the film’s characters.
Please don’t get me wrong when I say this film was punishing. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is sometimes beautiful. It’s often brilliant. However, it’s a deeply demanding insight into a writer’s pain. I admire the film’s craft: it’s a towering example of showing how to adapt a one-location play into a moving picture. But can I recommend this movie to anyone? Can I say I took enjoyment from this? Would I even watch this again? These are difficult questions.
The title is a pretty handy descriptor of the text. Starting in the early morning the film concerns a fateful day of the Tyrone family as they spend time with each other, as day turns into night, on an August day at their seaside home in Connecticut. All three men drink. The Mother is hopelessly addicted to morphine. The house is despondent. All the time is spent watching these characters seethe and churn. Anger switches to despair. Addiction seeps through each character. It soaks their brittle bones. The venom each family member spits at each other sizzles and burns like acid. There’s never any respite. No salve for the wounds inflicted, for the characters or the audience. The blows are traded and received. Truths are told and retold. Everyone must grin and bear.
This is a severe and gruelling motion picture, with a running time approaching three hours. This family trapped within a malaise of addiction and pain is based on O’Neill’s real life. It’s autobiographical. Many of the plot elements had occurred in his life. The guilt. The anger. The struggle. The blame. O’Neill was one of the first playwrights to bring such bitterness on to the American stage. Beforehand, American theatre was considered to be melodramatic. O’Neill gives birth to the pain on the stage; Lumet brings it to life on the screen, broadening the location with simple camera movement and transitions. There are so many different ways to stage and frame a scene, but a good director makes it feel like there was only one correct choice for the material at hand. Much of the film takes place in a few small rooms, but the dynamism of the film’s camera negates the fact that we never go too far.
Lumet’s secret weapon in this film is often the close-up; something O’Neill’s material never had in play form. Praise often goes to the likes of Bergman for his stark and poignant close-ups, but Lumet’s use of space and form is powerful here. The framed shots seen here are equally as uncompromising. Difficult to peel away from. As eloquent as they are grim. One moment has Katherine Hepburn make a simple claim to her son that she’s feeling ok, told in tight, unbending close-up. To see an actor truly work, we need to see when they lie with their eyes like Hepburn does here. It’s just one part of a crowning performance of a film that has three others. All equally as effective.
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Despite some of the film’s blatant theatrical mechanisms, the hurt feels true. There are stagey overtones, but the frailty and false pride of the characters strike through at nearly every chance. This isn’t just down to the dynamic filmmaking at play, but also to the fact that each actor nails their delivery so well that it doesn’t matter. The building up of the sniping before the outbursts. The way the rage seemingly subsides. It’s enthralling. It’s fascinating. It’s poisonous.
This is not a movie you love, although it is one to admire. Particularly in its craft. Lumet’s use of technique feels so sorely missed in this age of coverage. However, it’s used to illustrate something that doesn’t take any interest in rewarding a viewer in the way that we are placated now. It’s so easy to hear the argument from people that expect movies to be always active as opposed to reflective, that “nothing happens” in a movie such as this one. That’s just not true. However, Long Day’s Journey Into Night holds such a profound sadness in every exchange, it’s difficult to recommend it to someone who pursues movies as possibly only a Friday night distraction. It’s even difficult for me to give a “star rating”. It’s not a film made for such a scale. It’s not a film for star ratings or weekend night-in recommendations. But it is something that deserves to be watched.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is out now on Dual Format (Blu-ray and DVD) from Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters of Cinema range.